Islamic State: The Changing Face of Modern Jihadism

Report by Dr Erin Marie Saltman and Charlie Winter

This report was launched by Quilliam (November 2014). The link to the full report can be found here. The following is the Executive Summary to the report:

Executive Summary

This report differentiates itself from other analyses of Islamic State (IS) in two ways. Firstly, it takes a broader historical and ideological lens to contextualise the rise of the terrorist organisation and understand why it has been able to amass strength so effectively. Secondly, this report assesses why IS represents something of a game-changer in the global jihadist arena and what this means for Islamist-motivated terrorism in the years to come.

Key Findings

  • Despite current enmity, al-Qaeda and IS are tied by a similar jihadist ideology and violent interpretation of Islam. However, while al-Qaeda developed an outward-looking strategy under Osama bin Laden that focussed on destabilising the West before trying to establish a “caliphate”, IS has looked inwards first in establishing a state, as part of a strategy championed by the group’s deceased spiritual ideologue, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
  • As airstrikes against IS continue, we cannot rule out future coordination between al-Qaeda and IS. The international onslaught against IS is being used by certain jihadist ideologues as yet more evidence of the global conspiracy against Islam, a rallying call to unite against the West and foreign ‘crusaders’. As a result of this It is also likely that further jihadist splinter groups will converge with IS. Hence, a longer-term strategy needs to be developed which includes prevention of further proliferation of IS and affiliates within the Middle East.
  • IS was able to accelerate its rise to power in light of the Syrian war and has now positioned itself as the strongest opposition force to the Assad government. The ‘humanitarian’ angle of IS propaganda has been a leading factor in cultivating local allegiances as well as attracting a large number of foreign terrorist fighters (FTF), not to mention young women travelling to become wives of jihadists. IS is now channelling a similarly effective narrative in Iraq.
  • IS has rapidly become economically resilient through a sophisticated financial model which, unlike al-Qaeda, stresses the importance of autonomy. IS has developed self-sustainability mainly through resource production and sales of oil and water reserves.
  • The complexity of IS’ media strategy – using online tools to circulate multidimensional propaganda in coordination with sympathisers around the world – is something unprecedented for a terrorist organisation. The group has developed its own smart phone apps and distinctive online messaging system. It has also been benefiting greatly from a strong unofficial network of support from around the world. Counter-terrorism and counter-extremism efforts to confront IS’ online presence remain inadequate.

Based on the key findings of this report, Quilliam has developed some recommendations for counter-terrorism and counter-extremism policymakers, summarised below:

  • The means by which IS has built up its oil and resource capacities for needs to be addressed and stopped. IS funding streams need to be addressed directly. In particular, the group needs to be stopped from having the ability to purchase the loyalty of the people whose territories they conquer.
  • The new frontline of the crisis, the Internet, needs to be better defended. Censoring unwanted extremist content and propaganda materials is not only ineffective, but often counter-productive. It attacks a symptom rather than its cause. The online space needs to be better contested; community-led counter-speech initiatives and critical engagement strategies need to be developed and facilitated.
  • Throughout Europe and elsewhere, there is a need to address the roots of radicalisation based on the ideological appeal being cultivated by violent and non-violent extremist groups, online and offline. Extremist groups that recruit and indoctrinate young individuals remain active and are not currently being effectively countered in much of the world, particularly in vulnerable environments such as educational institutions, prison systems and local communities.
  • The reality of the threat posed by returning and potential FTFs needs to be better addressed and countered. Governments must identify prospective recruits and prevent them from travelling to join terrorist organisations abroad while also promoting the return of citizens. Returning FTFs should all face due process combined with a statutory de-radicalisation programme that addresses the post-traumatic stress disorder that many returnees will doubtless suffer from. De-radicalisation programmes should also provide tangible deliverables for eventual reintroduction into greater society while addressing the risk of an individual’s backsliding into extremist networks.
  • Al-Qaeda’s recent establishment of al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) demonstrates that it has no intention of being obscured by IS. While its affiliates may have demonstrated more localist ambitions of late, this is more out of pragmatism than anything else. Hence, if circumstances allowed, al-Qaeda would likely refocus its attention west, again. Hence security forces should not consider al-Qaeda irrelevant and should remain cognisant of the fact that they will continue to target the West, regardless of the events in Syria and Iraq.


While rejuvenating counter-extremism efforts the world over is, without doubt, imperative, one must also consider how best to go about removing one of IS’ greatest attractions, its success. Somehow, IS must be rolled back. It cannot be allowed to continue existing in either Iraq or Syria – the implications of its presence are profoundly destabilizing for the region. It has, in general, been accepted that this is the case, which is a positive development. However, to date, international efforts against IS have proven to be ineffective. Air strikes simply do not work in this context, even if they may have had some success in the fight against al-Qaeda. In a sense, it is unhelpful, at this stage, to understand the fight against IS as “counter-terrorism”. At least in the short term, the international community must fight fire with fire, conventional warfare with conventional warfare.  And yes, this does mean ground troops. However, it is imperative that these ground troops are not American or British – IS’ ideology would thrive off that. Rather, it is upon Sunni Muslim-majority countries like Turkey, Jordan and Saudi Arabia to fulfil this role.

A military strategy will not be enough, though. To bring an end to IS’ advances, we must ensure that the focus is on politics, in both Syria and Iraq. Now, things have reached a stage in which instability in one cannot be solved unless it is in the other as well. The world must reinvigorate its efforts to bring about a solution to the civil war in Syria. Similarly, in Iraq, the political system must change profoundly. As the fact that IS operates on an alliance network renders evident, it is not just ideology that is driving the crisis. Hence, the only long-term solution for this is political.

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